Taster's Choice

Getting Inside the Mind of a Sake Specialist

What it means to sip about 80 different styles over three days, then get it right.

By Timothy Malcolm September 5, 2018

Sake is still the Wild West for much of the American dining industry. But Tessa Lyon says there's definitely an uptick in knowledge and understanding of the Japanese rice-based spirit.

Image: Julie Soefer

The food and beverage industry is a weird place. Cooks spend decades working long hours with little time off, typically in sweltering kitchens and attaining little to no notoriety. Those who do get famous seemingly travel from place to place while keeping on a happy face for all social situations. Servers and other back-house employees fight for fair value while often calling their Mondays and Tuesdays the weekend. And managers, executives, sommeliers all have their own quirky schedules and livelihoods that make little sense outside of the industry.

Like the fact that you could spend three days tasting 80 pours of sake, then be quizzed about it, just so you can be considered an expert.

Tessa Lyon

Image: Julie Soefer

Tessa Lyon, assistant general manager of Kata Robata, just did this, becoming a Level 1 Certified Sake Specialist from the Sake Education Council. From August 13-15 in Miami she sipped dozens of sake pours, learning grades, milling rates, the difference between pasteurized and unpasteurized styles, and much more. At the end of the session she was quizzed and finished with around an 85 percent success rate. Sixty percent passes, so she was certified at Level 1.

Lyon joins Kata Robata chef/owner Manabu Horiuchi and general manager Blake Lewis as specialists. With the certification she can confidently present sake to patrons, talk about the brewing process (polishing and fermenting rice into alcohol), from suggesting styles to coming up with solid pairings.

“I know the backgrounds, the grades, and the history,” said Lyon. “I can’t just say ‘Oh I like this sake.’ I can elaborate more.”

But how does that even work? How does someone sip 80 pours in three days and keep all the notes straight?

“It can be overwhelming at times,” she said, adding she took notes and pictures. “You drink water, try to reset your palate, and in the best way just focus on the sake.”

Sometimes she’d have to go back and revisit some styles, and she was able to study before the big test. But sake isn’t wine—just because it’s brewed in a different region doesn’t mean it’s going to have different flavors.

“It’s a lot of information, and sake can be kind of vague,” she said. “There’s a lot of gray area when it comes to sake.”

And while sake specialists use many of the same terms that wine sommeliers use (brightness, crispness, clean, acidic, etc.), there’s the issue of a different language altogether. “Because there are so many Japanese terms, you have to wrap your head around so many phrases.”

So there’s a lot to learn and very little time to get it right. Just another one of those wacky aspects of working in the food and beverage industry.

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